This week is National Recycling Week, and most of us think of recycling as putting paper, plastic, glass and aluminum in a big blue bin. But that's not recycling any more than picking grapes is winemaking. Recycling is the manufacturing process of turning waste materials back into products. Alcoa recycles aluminum from kitchen foil and Coke cans. Nike recycles shoes into rubberized sports surfaces. What we as individuals do with our big blue bins is the recycling equivalent of picking wine grapes.
The paradox of the recycling industry is that while it's getting easier to collect recyclable material, it's getting harder to reuse it.
Since the advent of single stream (a.k.a. unsorted, everything in one bin) recycling, where we don't have to separate things by type, color, etc., it's meant a big increase in the amount of recycled material, and has saved municipalities a lot of money. But it's also meant a big decrease in how much is useable by companies making products with that material.
The main problem is contamination, and much of this can be easily remedied by us. As sacrilegious as it may sound, in some cases, it's best not to recycle and just throw things away. Broken glass is a prime example. Broken glass to a recycler -- regardless of whether they're recycling paper, plastic, aluminum or, ironically, even glass -- is like beach sand to swimmers: somehow, it works its way into everything and winds up making a big mess.
Broken glass should simply be thrown away, especially if it's from broken windows, drinking glasses, Pyrex or mirrors. Or you can make use of it in mosaics. Earth911 is an amazing resource for how, where, and what to recycle, beyond the typical things collected curbside in your area.
These types of glass are compositionally different from recyclable container glass and should never be put in your recycling bin. If "glass" from glassware, ceramics, window panes, or mirrors get mixed with recyclable glass -- which is especially likely to happen when dealing with small shards of broken material -- the resulting glass melt will not be suitable for making containers and can result in equipment malfunctions in a glass recycling plant.
When recycling paper, don't toss in greasy pizza boxes or paper containers for liquids. Grease and food waste causes bacterial contamination problems for paper recyclers. Paper containers such as milk cartons and coffee cups also should not be put in your recycling bin, because it's almost impossible to separate the external layers of paper from the internal layers of wax or plastic. Wrappers for food packaging also pose a problem. They should be sent to TerraCycle, which collects dozens of brands of typically unrecyclable packaging and products, even Sharpie pens!
What can we as individuals do?
1. Minimize food contaminants. Throw away food-contaminated paper containers (fast food wrappers, pizza boxes), wash out jars and cans and take the lids off bottles and containers before putting them in your recycling bin.
2. Ask for and buy recycled products. The most effective way to promote a green recycling economy is to grow demand for recycled goods. Generally, recycled goods take less resources to make than their non-recycled counterparts. For example, in the case of paper, organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund report that recycled paper takes far less water, energy and chemicals to make than paper made from wood pulp.
3. Support community recycling drives (or organize one for your favorite cause). Recyclables such as aluminum and newspaper are worth money. Many civic organizations, schools and other community groups are sponsoring collection drives for recyclable materials as fundraisers for their organizations or for charitable causes. Whether they're asking for Capri Sun packets or old magazines, try to support these local recycling drives. They not only provide valuable fundraising opportunities for neighborhood organizations, they also provide a cleaner supply of recyclable material to manufacturers.
It's clear that with companies like FutureMark Paper recycling more than 1.5 billion tons of paper and attracting new clients from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods this year, there's no lack of interest. With a little thought, we can help make sure that as much as possible of what we recycle actually gets used, while reducing landfill load and new resource use.
Paul Smith advises sustainable businesses through GreenSmith Consulting. FutureMark Paper is one of his clients.
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